Naima Green X Caroline Washington

Daylight Dialogues

Naima Green is an artist and educator currently living in Brooklyn, NY. She holds an MFA in Photography from ICP–Bard, an MA from Teachers College, Columbia University, and a BA from Barnard College. Her work has been featured in exhibitions at the Smart Museum of Art, MASS MoCA, International Center of Photography, Houston Center for Photography, Bronx Museum, BRIC, ltd los angeles, Gallery 102, Gracie Mansion Conservancy, Shoot the Lobster, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and Arsenal Gallery. Green has been an artist-in-residence at Recess, Mass MoCA, Pocoapoco, the Bronx Museum, and the Vermont Studio Center, and is a recipient of the Myers Art Prize at Columbia University.  

Her works are in the collections of the MoMA Library, the International Center of Photography Library, Decker Library at MICA, the National Gallery of Art, the Leslie-Lohman Museum, Teachers College, Columbia University, and the Barnard College Library.

Caroline Washington is a visual designer and introspective idealist at heart. She’s devoted to expanding cultural production and challenging structures of power and inequality through design. Beyond consulting on the design of Pur·suit, she has worked as a designer, strategist, and editor at the Brooklyn Museum, 2x4, Saint Heron, Suited Magazine, and Redscout. She graduated from Brown University and Parsons School of Design, and currently lives in Brooklyn. 

Pur·suit is a deck of 54 playing cards featuring photographs of queer womxn, trans, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming people. Inspired by photographer Catherine Opie's seminal work, Dyke Deck, Pur·suit brings a new perspective and vision to an iconic, foundational project. The project is a collaboration between photographer Naima Green, graphic designer Rin Kim, creative director Toby Kaufmann, and design consultant Caroline Washington

 

CW: Can you talk a little bit about your artist practice and how the idea for Pur·suit began?

 

NG: Pur·suit emerged while doing research at the New York Public Library when I encountered Catherine Opie's Dyke Deck. I was familiar with Opie's work, but not with this particular project. I was really surprised that a., I'd never heard of it before and b., that it was so hard to find. It was only in two nearby libraries, but they were both private. I ordered a deck on eBay and couldn't stop thinking about how the form of a deck might be a really interesting way to use photography as something that you can hold and carry around – something that's small enough to fit in your pocket – an object that’s mobile. When I looked at the Dyke Deck, which was made in 1995, I knew that I wanted to take that premise and bring it to Brooklyn and think about the queer, Black, and POC spaces that I'm in. I was trying to make something for the moment in Brooklyn – that was in 2018.

My artist practice has shifted, molded, and developed a lot over the last four years in particular, but I have been in the arts my whole life. I taught high school visual arts [ceramics, drawing, painting, video, animation, etc.] and, as a teacher, I was learning all the time. Photography, though, has always felt like a way of rendering life that is both a direct representation of the moment and also a fiction of what that moment is or could be. I’ve also been working with textiles and integrating more text and sound into my work. I just finished my first short film that will be in the exhibition, Brief & Drenching, at Fotografiska [when the museum is able to open] with found sound from an audio library I’ve collected over the past six years.

 

 

CW: You mentioned Black spaces and that you created a space where the photography happened. I'm curious how you think about the body and the queer body in space, and what kind of home you wanted to create for people with the set design. Can you paint a little picture of what that space and atmosphere were like in the studio?

 

NG: I met Toby Kaufmann, who is the creative director of Pur·suit, in June 2018. I started photographing for the project in October at her husband’s [Nick Ferrari] studio in downtown Brooklyn. Nick’s studio already kind of feels like a home. It was a huge space with a kitchen and a client seating area and a big studio area. Nick and Toby offered me that space to make this work. And you, Caroline, were the earliest person to collaborate with me on this project and to help me think through what design really means and to question what visual cues I'm drawn to. I had never really thought about naming those things, from a design perspective, of what the visual language is and how it's communicating. With you and Toby and Jessie Levindov, who worked with me on the set design, we really started to think about: What does it mean to create a space that is comfortable and welcoming? What does it mean to create a space that could feel somewhat like a home but also not distract from the people who are coming to be photographed. So the set, that first set, is a little bit softer and it has a lot of mauves and thin meshes and some iridescent fabrics and blues and copper. Going to the fabric store and touching things informed a lot. This pearled, mesh fabric was one of the first things I saw in the store, in the wedding section. I immediately knew I needed it to be a part of the set. It was a small piece, only a yard, but, for me, it also was a big anchor in the work that I was thinking about making in 2017 and 2018. It had a really special texture, and that's kind of where we started with a deck and thinking about that space as a whole. We made this set on V flats so that it could be folded up and put away and then brought out whenever there are people coming to set. I wanted it to be a whole experience – when people walked into the studio, they were greeted by a studio assistant or friend, offered water, offered tea, or they could sit down and decompress a little bit and do their hair if they needed to, do their makeup if they needed to. The space just needed to feel gentle in the same way I invite people into my home.

 

CW: Beyond space making, I'd love to talk a little bit more about the design and some of the visual intentions for the overall project. Beyond this gentle, home-like atmosphere, were there other visual aspirations you had further back?

 

NG: Yes, I’d also love to turn that question back on you too, because I think that you are so integral to that process. I remember that meeting we had at Sisters where you brought some of your archive. Start with what you brought to the table that day, if you don't mind. 

 

CW: Oh, sure. That was a pretty open and generative session from what I remember. Whenever I start exploring the visual parameters of a project, I like to start quite wide and fluid, and I remember laying out all of these influences that seemed quite disparate. As we were talking through the language of the project, and how we wanted to challenge some of the notions of how queer bodies are represented, and, even the notion of gender, it felt like a very open, fluid visual system was ripe for this project. I remember us feeling good about embracing some of the contradictions of some of the things that I had brought and talking about a system that could be layered and complex enough to reflect the notion of identity right now. And I think you have a very particular sensibility. There's a softness or gentleness that helps to tie everything together, but, I felt like, going into the project, a lot of our intentions were quite expansive.

 

 

NG: Yeah, I know that one of the key things that I brought to you in the beginning was that I didn't want it to feel too feminine or too binary. We had to think about how expansive the work and the design could be so that people felt included as soon as they stepped into the studio. One of the ways that shows up is that all the suits are the same color, so we didn’t create a hierarchy within the visual language of the card deck. Another way that we worked to collapse a binary was in the color palette, which is a rich, royal purple, some creamy, beige tones, and those blues, coppers, and mauve. We also brought that to the visual system of the cards themselves. For the process of assigning the cards, I sent everyone a survey where I asked them maybe 15 or 20 questions that range from "What texture are you?" to "If you could pick the card that you want to be in this deck, what would you choose?" "What season do you identify with?" "What's your favorite tarot card?"  They were random, or seemingly random, questions and then I made a key for myself. The card suits are related to earth elements and seasons, and I also asked about astrology and the elements. The goal was for people to self-identify as much as possible so that I didn’t have this top-down power of assigning people randomly. The process became more about collaboration, so people felt that they had a choice in the way that they were represented. I think we also challenged the notions of what Royals could look like in the language of the deck as well.

 

CW: Can you talk about the casting process and how you chose the folks that you photographed?

 

NG: The casting process started with friends and then I also wanted to challenge my own impulse of working with the [same] people that I often work with. It was my first time casting through an open call. About 60% of people were chosen through that open call. We also worked with an amazing casting director named Lilac Perez. The majority of people who walked into the studio, I was meeting for the first time. And that's not new to my practice. It does push me to establish a sense of trust and intimacy rather quickly when you have 30 or 60 minutes to make a portrait. That's part of why photography is so exciting to me, because it still makes me nervous in a way. I want it to be great, and I want people to feel seen and comfortable. In those wants, I have to be present with everyone I'm meeting, because we're creating a new atmosphere together on set.

CW: You mentioned that you had to challenge some of your own biases throughout this project. I think there was a moment when you looked at the portraits, and you felt like there were certain points of view that were missing. Can you talk about that?

 

NG: There was a moment when I photographed over six or seven days. I was reflecting on all the work that I had and realized that there was a strong representation of queer womxn and non-binary, gender non-conforming people and some trans men but not enough trans womxn. Making sure that womxn of trans experience are represented in the deck is crucial. Something I still know is missing from the deck is Black, trans womxn, and, even in reaching out to people I know, there is something I need to do differently so that this project can feel more inclusive. That is something that is top of mind for me moving forward with this work and in making the archive.

 

CW: Related to this idea of inclusivity, you have talked to me, and I think, publicly, about your deck filling in a missing data set. Can you talk more about that and about how you see the role of the archive in this project?

 

NG: Mimi Onuoha has a piece of writing about missing datasets. We're constantly being surveilled. Data is constantly being collected. I mean, you think about right now, where people are contact tracing to track who you've been in touch with, who you've been close to. Data is everywhere and is everything that we do, and, at the same time, why is it that, with all this data collection, we still don't have deep, rich histories of Black, queer people, of POC, queer people? Where do those things live? And it also comes back to the idea of master narratives. The dominant people in society are the ones who are writing the histories, maintaining the archives, deciding whose stories are important to hold on to. When I heard that language of missing datasets, I realized that a lot of my work is about missing datasets. From Jewels from the Hinterland to Pur·suit, thinking about the way Black people are pictured and represented, and the way queer people are pictured, remembered, represented, and archived and the gap that exists in our histories and how we define them. The archive is important for that purpose which is what I'm working on now. I like to think of Pur·suit – the deck – as a first iteration of a very expansive, living organism, of something that will continue to grow and shift as I do, as I continue to do more research, as I learn more, as I meet more people, as I live and grow. It's so important to archive the moment that we're in and to think about the act of living as something, especially for queer people, that should be documented and remembered and thought about in a nuanced way.

CW: I like that you talk about it as a living project. Can you talk about the life that you've seen Pur·suit take on in the world so far? How have people engaged with it? Have there been any interesting stories or surprises around how it has been received?

 

NG: It has been overwhelming in such a beautiful way. I didn't exactly know what was going to happen. I had this idea. I made all the photographs, and then we had to figure out how to fund it. In the beginning, I was funding everything, and that wasn't sustainable considering how much it cost to make the cards. It just isn't sustainable as a practice in general. With the launch of the Kickstarter in January of 2019, the support was beyond what I had imagined. Over 700 people contributed to the project and the largest donation was $1,000. Getting to the point of Pride [in June] last year, when we released the decks and had the launch party at NoBar, it was blissful to see people react and respond with such excitement, wanting to play with them and use them as a point of recognition. In quarantine, many people have reached out to me to say “I play Solitaire with them all the time.” I had someone DM me at a period during quarantine where I was feeling so down and so low and so disconnected from my work. They told me they live in a house that is not safe for their queer body, and someone gifted them the deck, and they felt like they were seen for the first time in a really long time. They could look at the deck and remember that there are other people in the world like them, too. Sometimes I forget how seemingly small and powerful that message is. There is so much happening beyond what is in our imaginations, and sometimes we need to see something that helps us expand our frames of reference. 

 

CW: I wonder if there have been any new reflections or new dimensions the project has taken on as the world has kind of crumbled over the last few months from this global pandemic to a more intensified movement for Black lives. Does any of that influence how you think about this work, especially connection and intimacy and how you'd like to move it forward?

 

NG: It's a really strong reminder of how important it is to photograph, especially when thinking about the Movement for Black Lives, and, because images have been ignored or more complex images have been erased, how easy it is for people to dehumanize Black people and Blackness. It feels like a constant reminder to make space for joy, especially for Black joy, especially queer, Black joy and to highlight not only just the contributions that people have offered, but also to highlight that you can be someone who just lives and that that is a contribution. You are still worthy of living and of basic human rights. It's so discouraging to be having these conversations. There is a part of me that feels deep grief and rage and another part of me that knows something is seriously happening in this moment. People are mobilizing with sustained commitments to marches, rallies, protests, and to knowing that unrest and uprising are needed for there to be deep work both in the white imagination and in this country as a whole. During lockdown and quarantine, which I’m still in, a lot of grief has come to the surface, and also, I feel like some of the fog has lifted, and I feel more empowered and encouraged to keep at it. There's no rush, in the sense that this is going to be a lifelong fight on all sides. I've always felt a sustained commitment to my work, but right now I feel like this is what I'm going to do for the rest of my life. I am very comfortable with that. At times I’ve felt overwhelmed by all the work that needs to be done, but now I feel like there is time there, you know. I hope that I have a long life and that I can put in the time to make these works and objects and images and writing and whatever else my practice becomes.

 

CW: Yeah, beautiful. On that note, now that you are sustained in this practice, what's next for Pur·suit or just for your broader artist practice?

 

NG: Well, most immediately, when we can go to museums in New York, my exhibition Brief & Drenching will open at Fotografiska. There are a lot of new pictures, large Pur·suit portraits, moving image, and ideas in that show that I’m excited to share. When lockdown began, I was two weeks into my session at Recess in Brooklyn, and, while I've had to transition a lot of my thinking around what their residency looks like, being able to move some of the events into a digital space has made them more accessible, which is exciting. It's been interesting to think about digital space, because I don't naturally run towards digital... anything, really, so I’ve opened up in some ways. It has started to open up the possibilities for the archive as something that is both physical and digital.

I’m also thinking about how fun this work is and can be. There is so much life that happens before, during, and after the portrait making, and I’ve started to interview people for Pur·suit, and it’s opening the work up in a special way that provides more texture. Everything is ongoing. It is rigorous and difficult and overwhelmingly tender and joyful. It’s a gift.

 

Lead Image: Kendra & Alexandra, Pur·suit, 2020